Carbon Monoxide Detector Law Addresses Dangerous Gas

In an emergency situation, everyone would like to make the best decision.

But if you are breathing in carbon monoxide, that's not possible, because it limits the intake of oxygen.

"When your body loses oxygen, your brain doesn't have the ability to do the right thing," UW Health Trauma Director Lee Faucher, MD said.


"The burn community figures that people jump from burning buildings because their brain's not thinking clearly. They're still aware enough to move themselves around, but they're probably not making the decision that otherwise would be made."

However, you won’t be aware that you are being affected by carbon monoxide - a tasteless, odorless, colorless gas - without a detector.

And as of Feb. 1, Wisconsin law requires carbon monoxide detectors in almost all residences. Any dwelling with fuel-burning appliances (such as furnaces and water heaters), fireplaces or attached garages must have carbon monoxide detectors in the basement and on each floor.


"Most people spend their time in their homes, so thereby, most injuries occur in and about their home," Faucher said. "This is just one more way to keep you and your family safe for just pennies. Of course, the likelihood of something happening is small, but if it does happen, it could be catastrophic."


Worst of all, it would be without warning.


"You would never know. You would just get sleepy and you might not feel well, but those are the only things," Faucher said. "That's why carbon monoxide doesn't wake people up from their sleep. It's not noxious."


Carbon monoxide, the byproduct of combustion, doesn't occur naturally in the air. With appliances such as furnaces and water heaters, the toxic gas is expelled from buildings through ventilation systems.


Faucher said that most cases of people being affected by carbon monoxide are the result of fires. The others typically occur when those ventilation systems don't work properly, for whatever reason.


For example, four people were hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning in January, an incident blamed on a malfunctioning furnace. Faucher also recalled a case of a family whose truck was stuck in the snow. They turned on the engine to stay warm. But the exhaust pipe was filled with snow and ended up sending carbon monoxide back into the truck, leading to the tragic deaths of two children.

"It takes a long time for that carbon monoxide to build up, so the sooner you can get (a warning), the sooner you can still make those decisions," Faucher said, noting that detectors are set to sound an alarm at low levels of concentration.


If it isn't detected, the amount of gas in the air keeps rising and increases the risk.


After two or three hours of exposure at 100 parts per million, a person likely would feel only a slight headache. But at 1,600 parts per million, a person likely would have a headache, dizziness and nausea within 20 minutes and could die within two hours.


"It's a lack of oxygen to all of their body cells ... and there is damage from that," Faucher said. "Cells die when they don't have oxygen, and some cells die faster than others. Cells like your brain, they're affected faster by not having oxygen."


Faucher said medical personnel assess carbon monoxide poisoning in terms of a percentage in the blood.


"When numbers get above 40, people would not be making the right decisions," he said. "You could tell, they would not be talking to you correctly. They wouldn't be making the right decisions."


Victims are usually given a breathing tube and 100 percent oxygen - air contains only 21 percent oxygen - to try to get the carbon monoxide out of the body.


"Carbon monoxide sticks to red blood cells 200 times stronger than oxygen does. So it only takes a little bit of carbon monoxide to stay in the bloodstream," Faucher explained. "You have to just flood the blood with oxygen to kick off all of that extra carbon monoxide. As these molecules are moving around, if there's a choice to stick to the red blood cell, you want that choice to always be that oxygen molecule."

Date Published: 02/14/2011

News tag(s):  traumachildrenouruwhealth

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